|Innocence, the first casualty 2|
What sort of atmosphere is this for learning or teaching? What happens to any of us when we are frightened? Children cannot focus on school education — routinely, they are simply too frightened to think. Many children have to pass by tanks or soldiers or perhaps even armed settlers on their way to and from school. This is a ground reality, irrespective of what is happening on the macro scale or whether actual fighting is going on. How can they be expected to concentrate at all during the day with such an ordeal to face at the end of it? Then there is additional stress at the schools, because the teachers are going through the same situation as the children, and also have to deal with their own families and fears. What is more, the children lag behind on the curriculum because they miss many days of school, which puts them under even more stress. So, with their ability to work already compromised, they have to do more, and this sets them back even further as their marks go down and they feel further discouraged.
The schools themselves are not always safe either. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Education (itself the target of several attacks), 185 schools have been shelled and fired upon by Israeli soldiers; 11 schools have been completely destroyed; 15 schools have been used as detention centres and army barracks; 132 children have been killed and 2,500 injured on their way to and from school. In March and April 2002, 850 schools were paralysed and 1,135 school days were lost because of Israeli attacks. These are things that should not ever be allowed to happen, even in a state of occupation. Schools should be treated as sanctuaries of learning and out of bounds in any conflict. The fact that they have not only been targets, but have also been taken over for use by the military, shows official support for this attack on learning and education.
Children need a safe environment just to concentrate. They also need to be able to play, to enjoy the normal concerns of children. If they are traumatised, they need security even more, and research during the first year of the intifada (by Tel Aviv University) showed that 70 per cent of Palestinian children in Ramallah, Bethlehem and the Gaza Strip suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorders. What can the levels be like now?
Figures from Defence of Children International (DCI) show that the Israeli military is killing an increasing number of Palestinian children. "In the year 2002, 176 children were killed, exceeding the number killed each year in 2001 (98) and 2000 (105). …the Israeli military is killing younger children; in the first eight-and-a-half months of 2002, 52.8 per cent of Palestinian children killed were aged 12 years and younger (with 32.8 per cent eight years and younger)." DCI adds that Israeli military is using increasing levels of force in the killing of children." In 2002, one half — 50.4 per cent — of the children killed sustained multiple fatal injuries to more than one part of the body, as compared to one-third of the children in 2001.
Right at the beginning of the violence, children lost their concentration — they were unable to copy simple drawings of triangles and teachers and parents found, all too often, that what they said went unheard. One mother complained that her nine-year-old son had not been able to progress beyond the letter ‘n’ in the alphabet in two years. Even adults are unable to concentrate, and it is that much more difficult for children. Not only do children draw many pictures of blood, of helicopters dropping bombs, of doves of peace murdered in some gory way, they have also largely stopped drawing with any colour — give a child a tray full of colours and she or he will choose only the black, the grey or the brown.
The teachers have an important role in the protection of children, but they too live in the same difficult, tiring and often very frightening or humiliating situation. They too have often not slept, have perhaps had to wait for hours at a checkpoint, have had a friend or relative killed or arrested. "How can I concentrate when I spent all of last night hiding in the bathroom with my children because it was the safest place during the shelling?" asks one teacher.
This is during a normal and ‘quiet’ situation, but of course if something happens — if there is an attack or a curfew during the day — are the schools safe places, are they capable of protecting the children? It is not only on the way to and from school that children are exposed to danger. Schools have been shelled and children have been injured inside schools. There is a girls’ school in the Aida refugee camp near Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem where not a single classroom has walls and ceiling left whole. The headmistress said they had been told to keep down, that the shells would go high, but clearly the bottom of the walls down near the floor had also borne the impact of the shelling. How could children ever feel safe there?
Some schools now have a system in place for emergencies — they know where to hide and what to do — but in general, the reaction to danger is panic. The teachers themselves often have their own children in other schools and kindergartens and naturally, they fear for their safety. They want to get them home and be with them during the worst danger. There is often total chaos, therefore, and of course the roads clog up as everyone panics and needs to go in different directions.
This too is the reality of Palestinian children.
Hopefully, the damage caused to the child’s mental health by such events can be reversed, at least partially. But the children are also starting to suffer from a less reversible process — the breakdown of Palestinian society, in a most humiliating and painful way. Where once there was a traditional patriarchal structure, often with an extended family, with the men going out to work and providing for the family, now the vast majority of men are out of work and must sit at home, useless, frustrated and often hungry as well. This is not a form of liberation, as when the woman and the man can work together as partners both inside and outside a marriage, with reciprocal friendship and respect. It is a situation where men have been made to appear — and indeed, to actually be — less than they are; where their children bear witness every day to their impotence, and where, therefore, the respect and the family ties that have held this society together through so many tragedies are being torn apart.
Lucy Nusseibeh is Director of Middle East Non-violence and Democracy, which works with people and societies affected by conflict, with special emphasis on children. She lives in Palestine